Monday, 1 September 2014

Getting started

Advice for beginning writers often includes finding a photograph, maybe in a magazine, and writing a description of the person in it. The disadvantage of this is that one can end up with a list of facts but with very little insight into personality - what makes the person tick. 

Of course different approaches work for different people and everyone needs to try a variety of methods to find what works best for him or her. What follows is based on what I do at the very earliest stages of planning a novel.  

Do not sit down and stare at a computer screen or blank page of a notebook. 

Think of a character. Not too much detail at this stage. 
Male or female? 
Name? This can be changed later if it turns out not to suit him or her. For the purpose of this blog post only, let's say it's a woman called Mary. 
Approximate age?
Setting? If it's historical, the approximate year, and whether it takes place in London, in a big town or in the country. At some point you will need to narrow it down to time of year and specific part of the country. But there's no need to do this now.

Put Mary in a situation that requires her to take some action or make a decision. This could be a fairly minor, every day situation such as being delayed on a journey, or  a big life changing event. 

Go for a walk, do the ironing, weed the garden. Don't consciously try to think about Mary, but if she floats to the surface of your mind, give some thought to her and the situation you've placed her in. How will she react when she discovers it? What will she do about it?

This is actually a very important part of the process. An author might be at this stage for years before putting anything down on paper or on computer. But for the purposes of this exercise, give it from a few hours to a few days. 

Now sit down and write about the moment when Mary discovers the situation, showing how she reacts and what she decides to do.  You might only write a paragraph, you might write several pages. It doesn't matter; whichever you do, in  the end you'll have leaned something about yourself as a writer. 

At some point, Mary will need to talk to someone about what has happened. Who will she talk to? Parent? Sibling? Husband? Boyfriend? Child? Friend? Employer? Someone else? How does that person react? Is he or she sympathetic or hostile? How does Mary react to that?

After some more walking/ironing/gardening, sit down and write the conversation between Mary and the other person. 

Looking back over the two scenes you've written, as well as showing what the characters are doing and saying, have you shown what they're thinking and feeling? If writing a full length novel, this is something that might come at the editing stage, after the first draft was completed.

The way in which Mary dealt with the original situation, and the conversation she had about it, should have revealed something about her personality and her personal circumstances. What do you know about her now that you didn't know when you started? 

You could continue to develop these ideas. What happens as a consequence of the decision or action Mary took at the beginning? What are the repercussions of the conversation she had? 

Alternatively, start again with a new character and a new situation. 

The aim is to experiment and to find out what comes easily - plot development or character development, narrative or dialogue - and what type of character and setting you like to write about.  

Above all, the idea is to relax and let the ideas come to you!  

Friday, 22 August 2014

Work in Progress

I'm currently working on a murder mystery set in Victorian London. I hope to publish it in the New Year.

From a research point of view, Victorian London is an excellent setting for a novel. There is so much  material available online. I've been able to do all the necessary research without stepping away from the computer. Pre-internet, it might have taken months or years to find this amount of information. And then one would have to photocopy it, or transcribe it by hand.

On the other hand, from a research point of view, Victorian London can be a bad choice of setting because there is so much material available online. There is always more research that can be done. This is true of course even when the subject is not Victorian London and whether one is talking about a fiction or non-fiction project. One can spend forever researching and never get around to writing anything. But it is much easier to procrastinate when the source material is a click of a mouse away at any time of day or night, rather than requiring a journey to a record office which is only open for limited hours.

It's also possible to become excessively bogged down in detail.  I work on the principle of 'if you can't find out, leave it out' and gloss over minor points if they aren't essential to the plot. The main thing in historical fiction, I think, is to be true to the time and place and the mindset of the people who lived in it, rather than obsessively trying to recreate the period by describing every little detail.

Even when I have been able to find out something, I sometimes ignore it! I've been able to discover the exact layout of a particular location I'm using for a key development of the plot. On referring back to it, having written the chapter, I've found that the action I've described doesn't quite fit the layout. I've decided that artistic licence is permitted here. My plot is  not affected one way or the other. The location no longer exists (although I have Google Earthed the place where it was, and I may go and visit it one day)  and it would have to be a very nitpicky reader who went to the trouble of tracking down the source I've used and comparing it with what I've written.

I also have a minor plot problem. I need a fairly minor incident to occupy my character away from the main storyline for a short time. I had an idea for this, but have decided it's good enough to develop into a story in its own right. So it's back to the planning stage on that one, and a bit more reading round the subject to see if anything inspires me.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Plantagenet Mystery available on Kindle

My new novel is now available on Kindle. The Plantagenet Mystery is set in the present day, but the mystery begins in the fifteenth century and touches the lives of many people through generations.

Historian Rob Tyler finds himself involved in a mystery which has its origins in the times of the clash of dynasties, of battles, treachery and treason, when having the wrong bloodline could be enough to send a man or woman to the executioner's block. As Rob uses his skills as a historian to uncover the secret he finds his courage and determination tested and discovers that the the difference between right and wrong is not as clearcut as he had thought.

See more at my Amazon page.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

'The lamps are going out all over Europe'

War has inspired great prose and poetry in the English language. Churchill's speeches in the Second World War. The poetry of Owen, Sassoon and others in the First World War. One liners by military and naval men such as Wellington and Drake. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the year 878. 

Among the most elegant, and most prophetic, words spoken about war were those of Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, on the evening of 3rd August 1914. Britain was not yet at war, but the belief was that British participation in the already ongoing European war could not now be avoided. 

Grey's words have become so closely associated with the outbreak of war that they have been taken as the theme for this week's commemoration. 

In a generation of politicians that included David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, Grey was not the most charismatic nor the best orator nor the greatest man of letters. But it was his speech to the House of Commons on 3rd August that defined the British position and caused the majority, in Parliament and in the country, to accept that Britain had just cause to go to war. It was 'a statement destined to remain memorable in the history of the world', said the Times

According to his own memoirs, it was after making that speech that Grey, while looking out of the window of his rooms in the Foreign Office, spoke the words to a friend who was with him. 

'We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.'

The Great War changed Europe and the lives of many families not just for Grey's lifetime (he died in 1933) but forever. 

Four Empires fell - the German, the Austrian, the Russian and the Turkish. The consequences are still being felt in parts of Europe and in the Middle East today. 

The Peace of Versailles, which was recognised as flawed almost before the ink was dry, contributed to the great financial problems of Europe in the 1920s and to the Second World War, which in turn led to the Cold War. 

Grey's own party, the Liberals, yielded to a Coalition government in 1915. The party was deeply split and never again held office.  

The Great War had a much greater impact on the people of Britain than any previous war. Every family must have been touched by it  in some way. 

For Britain, this was the first war fought with a conscript army (from 1916). 5.7 million British men served in the Army at some time during the war. A further three million Imperial and Commonwealth troops served. Men also served in the Royal and merchant navies and the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force.  About one million died. Many more were left disabled, with lasting impact on their families. 

Millions more men and women worked in munitions and other industries related to war. Many moved away from their homes to do so, sometimes taking their families with them, changing the course of their lives and those of their descendants. 

This war was fought on the Home Front, something which the Britain, as an island, was not accustomed to. Aerial warfare brought civilian casualties. The U Boat campaign brought the country near to starvation.  

This week we should remember not just the men who went to fight and who died, but also those who came home disabled, and the women and children whose lives were changed by the war.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

1066 And All That

At this time of year many young people are waiting for the results of their public examinations. A uniform system of examinations for school pupils was established a little less than a hundred years ago. The School Certificate, taken at the age of fifteen or sixteen, and the Higher Certificate, taken at seventeen or eighteen, were introduced in 1917.

Only a minority of pupils sat these exams. The school leaving age was raised from twelve to fourteen in 1918. Not all children had access to secondary education, and not all of those who did followed a curriculum which led to School Certificate. In 1919, the first year in which the exam was held, 28,000 pupils were entered for the School Certificate. In 1950, the last year in which it was held, 99,900 took the exam.

From 1951 School Certificate was replaced by O [Ordinary] Levels and A [Advanced] Levels. O Levels were themselves replaced by GCSEs in 1988.

There are longstanding debates about the comparative rigour of School Certificate, O Levels and GCSEs. School Certificate was certainly more demanding in one respect. A candidate had to pass six subjects at one sitting in order to achieve the certificate. Commercial subjects as well as the more traditional academic subjects were taken.

Course content and teaching methods have also been much discussed. Here is the School Certificate English History paper from March 1932.

Oxford Local Examinations
School Certificate
Thursday, March 17, 1932, from 10.45 A.M to 1 P.M

English History, 55 B.C. – 1904 A.D. 

[Answer FIVE questions. Questions may be chosen from ONE Section only, or from any TWO.
Credit will be given for SIMPLE sketch-maps whenever they are appropriate.]

SECTION 1 (55 B.C.  1485 A.D.]

1. Give an account of the rise and development of the kingdom of Northumbria, pointing out its importance in English history.

2. Explain carefully the importance of the following : –
(a) The withdrawal of the Roman legions.
(b) The battle of Deorham.
(c) The battle of Ethandune
(d) The payment of Danegeld

3. What were the causes of the anarchy in the reign of Stephen? State what steps Henry II took to restore the country to law and order.

4. Compare the career of Simon de Montfort with that of Thomas of Lancaster.

5. Show how by legislation or other means Edward I increased the royal power over (a) the barons (b) the Church.

6. Trace the course of the Hundred Years’ War during the reign of Edward III. How far was he successful in that war?

7. Either (a) Write an account of the Black Death and show how it affected the interests of the feudal landlords and their labourers. Or (b) Explain fully what is meant by the statement that Wycliffe was ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation.’

8. Choosing either Henry IV or Edward IV explain why he had to fight (a) to get the throne (b) to keep it.

SECTION II (1485  1660)

9. Explain and discuss one of the following topics :–
(a) The Tudor despotism.
(b) The Revival of Learning.

10. Account for :–
(a) The fall from power of the Protector Somerset.
(b) The failure of Wyatt’s rebellion.

11. What were the main difficulties that faced Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign? Show to what extent and by what means she overcame them.

12. What do you know of the maritime exploits of Englishmen during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I?

13. Give an account of the foreign policy of (a) Henry VIII (b) James I. In what ways were their policies similar?

14. Show what led to the following and how they affected the fortune of Charles I :–
(a) The Ship-Money case.
(b) The Solemn League and Covenant.

15. Write an account of the main incidents after the battle of Naseby that led finally to the execution of Charles I.

16. What are the claims of Oliver Cromwell to greatness?

SECTION III (1660  1792)

17. Charles II promised liberty to tender consciences. How far was this promise fulfilled during his reign?
18. James II was not unpopular at hs accession: three years later he lost his throne for lack of support. Account for these two facts.

19. Give a short account of Marlborough’s campaigns on the Continent.

20. Point out the main difficulties in the way of the Union of England and Scotland. Show how the difficulties were overcome, and give the main terms of agreement in 1707.

21. There were both advantages and disadvantages for the country in the Whig domination during the first half of the eighteenth century. Give some account of these.

22. Illustrate the importance of British sea power in the Seven Years’ War.

23. Discuss two of the following topics :–
(a) The work of Warren Hastings in India.
(b) The career and importance of John Wesley.
(c) Conditions in Ireland in the eighteenth century.

24. How far had either Pitt or Burke shown himself to be a great statesman before the French Revolution?

SECTION IV (1792  1904)

25. Describe and estimate the importance of three of the chief reforms carried out in the first half of the nineteenth century. Which had the most far reaching effects? Give reasons for your view.

26. Show how Napoleon tried to ruin (a) Great Britain’s trade and (b) her Eastern Empire. Account for his failure to achieve these two objects.

27. Give a short account of three of the following :–
(a) The Luddites.
(b) The Manchester Massacres.
(c) The Six Acts.
(d) The Cato Street Conspiracy.

28. Describe and discuss the importance of either (a) Canning’s foreign policy or (b) Gladstone’s domestic reforms.

29. Discuss the following topics :–
(a) The reason for Britain’s entry into the Crimean War.
(b) The attitude of Britain to the American Civil War

30. Show the importance of (a) Lord Durham (b) Cecil Rhodes, in the history of the British Empire.

31. Compare Peel and Disraeli as party leaders.

32. Explain and indicate the importance of :–
(a) The repeal of the Combination Act in 1825.
(b) The Reform Act of 1867.
(c) Mr Balfour’s Education Act of 1902.

Friday, 4 July 2014

'Full of strange oaths'

There is a debate on the letters pages of the current Writing Magazine about the use of swearing in fiction. On one side is the argument that many readers find it offensive and that it is unnecessary. On the other hand it is argued that this is how many people speak; that in the real world one hears swearing all around and it is unrealistic not to include a lot of swear words if the character in question would use them.

Perhaps it is not entirely true to life to  leave out the swearing, but how often do we write dialogue that is entirely true to life?

Some people use a lot of ums and ers in their speech. Do we include all of those?

What abut the person who ends every sentence with 'know what I mean?' or, like, says 'like' two or three times in every sentence, like?

People often pause in the middle of a sentence while they search for the correct word, or a name they cannot quite recall. Do we include dashes or ellipses every time that happens?

Sometimes, a speaker will have to repeat what he or she said because the other person did not hear properly the first time. Should a writer include instances of that, for the sake of realism?

Some people's speech is very disjointed, jumping from one subject to another and  taking forever to get to the point. 'I saw that woman yesterday, you know the one, lives next door to the shop -  did I tell you there are new people in the shop? Nice couple, got a little boy. Anyway, this woman - oh, you remember her, her daughter was a year above you at school, Sally or Sandra or something, went to train as a nurse, anyway, like I was saying -'

Most people probably know someone like that, but would we write her speech out exactly like that?

All of these examples have the effect of slowing the pace of the story. A writer might choose to use each of them at one time or another for a particular purpose, but it would be to serve the story, not for the sake of realism.

Excessive use of swear words similarly slows the pace. Yes, some people in real life do use the f-word multiple times per sentence,  but in fiction it is repetitive and boring. Why would any writer want to bore his or her readers?

Where the author has a word limit, repetition is also a waste of words.

And to return to the original point, many people would find prose littered with obscenities and profanities offensive, and not want to read it. Why would a writer purposely write in a style that he or she knew would offend a proportion of potential readers?

Of course, writers should not avoid challenging or controversial styles or themes for fear that people might not want to read them. But use of bad language does not fall into this category. A good writer should be able to find other means of establishing character or mood. A professional writer should be aiming to entice readers, not alienate them.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Meeting Places

One difficulty when writing fiction with a historical setting is coming up with ways for male and female characters to spend time together. 

With upper and middle class characters there are the well-used settings of balls, assemblies, dinner parties, country house parties.  Chaperonage was not as strict as some Regency novelists suggest; in Jane Austen's novels it was acceptable for a young woman to walk and talk with a man  in the town or country. Darcy twice entered a room where Elizabeth was alone and on each occasion stayed long enough to have a conversation with her. 

Among the working classes, men and women might have the same workplace - a factory, a farm, an inn. By the end of the nineteenth century, when more employment opportunities were opening up for women, men and women might be employed together in a school or an office or a department store. 

Young men and women from the middle classes and better off working classes  might belong to local or workplace based clubs and societies where they could meet and socialise.

Couples who were recognised as 'walking out' together might have more leeway in what they could do.

But what about men and women who were in none of those situations? What does a novelist do with a respectable young woman who lives in a rented room where it would be inappropriate to entertain a male acquaintance? When neither she nor the man in question has a family home, or none nearby, to which someone can be invited for Sunday tea? 

They have to do what many other people did in the past, and meet in public places.

Many people's homes in the past were small, overcrowded, poorly heated, poorly furnished. As a result, a lot of social interaction took place outside the home. The pub, of course, was the most popular meeting place for both men and women. In 1891 there was one licensed house for every 276 men, women and children in England and Wales.  These ranged from backstreet alehouses to opulent gin palaces. 

Coffee houses existed from the late seventeenth century. Some, such as Edward Lloyd's, catered for a business clientele and were less likely to be frequented by women. There was a wide range of other establishments, operating day and night, some more salubrious than others. 

In the Victorian period, public parks and open spaces were becoming available, but were really only practical in daylight. 

For many people in the past, life was lived on the street. Eating, drinking, talking, working, playing, singing, dancing, quarrelling, fighting, all took place in public, often because people did not have the space or the facilities to do these things indoors. 

Conflict arose in the Victorian era when middle class suburban development collided with working class neighbourhoods, or when holiday visitors arrived in traditional coastal communities. Sometimes, traditional entertainments were suppressed due to outrage at the rowdy and immoral nature of the proceedings.

For the middle classes, and the better off working classes, domestic life was the ideal, exemplified by the family life of the Queen and Prince Albert.

 This was something more people could aspire to, as standards of housing improved and people could afford to furnish their homes more comfortably. Entertainment at home or healthy, educational outdoor pursuits were seen as preferable to life lived in public. 

All of this can be used as a source of conflict in a novel. Meanwhile, the two characters in this particular piece of work will be spending a lot of time in coffee houses or just walking the streets together. 

Friday, 20 June 2014


When should writers of historical fiction disregard historical accuracy in favour of clarity for the reader? Or. to put it anther way, how hard should writers expect their readers to work in order to follow the narrative?

General advice is that writers should not underestimate their readers; that readers like to work things out for themselves and do not need to have everything explained in detail. On the other hand, some readers can't, or don't want to, do that. I don't want readers to think I have been inaccurate, or to be put off reading, because I have made things over complicated in the pursuit of strict historical accuracy.

In Inheritance of Secrets my heroine visits Tonbridge, a market town dating from the Middle Ages if not earlier, and Tunbridge Wells, a spa town four miles from Tonbridge which developed from the middle of the seventeenth century.

Those spellings only became fixed in the late nineteenth century. At the time the book is set, Tunbridge was the more common spelling for both places. The Kent historian Edward Hasted, who was writing at that time, used Tunbridge for both.

So should I have used Tunbridge to refer to the market town for the sake of historical accuracy? But readers who didn't know of the variation in spellings might think I had been inaccurate! In the end I decided on the modern spelling, in order not to distract readers from the narrative.

In the work I'm currently preparing for publication, my contemporary characters are reading some historical documents. At the time these documents were (supposedly) written, the year would have been expressed in Roman numerals. Will readers who aren't familiar with Roman numerals be put off by this, and by the spelling and punctuation (or lack of it) likely to be found in documents of that period?

I want to include the actual text of the documents, for a  variety of reasons. The characters will reiterate the main points of information in the discussions they have after they have read them. I hope readers who have no trouble following the archaic style of the documents don't consider this to be repetition and dumbing down.

Writers of purely contemporary fiction don't have this particular problem, but any novelist who uses specialist knowledge as part of the background or setting for the story must address the question of how much to explain. There will always be readers who think the writer has gone too far in one direction or the other. The most important thing is to be sure that readers can follow the development of the plot.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How to write dialogue

Or how I write it, anyway. All writers have to find methods that work for them, by experiment and practice. 

If I have two or more characters in a scene, I generally like to have them talking to each other, unless there are good reasons why they should not be. If they are hiding from their enemies, for example, and need to be quiet. 

Or perhaps nothing important to the plot is happening at that point and including the whole conversation only slows down the action. If the characters are discussing where to go for a meal, it's probably enough to say 'They decided to go to the Italian restaurant in the High Street' and pick up the dialogue again when there is some important plot or character development. 

I have included dialogue in a novel that might have appeared to be unnecessary, but it was a mystery and there was a clue hidden in the characters' apparently aimless chatter! 

Scenes involving more than one character which include big revelations about plot or character should always (in my opinion) be written in the form of dialogue. 

I'm not a great planner, but if it's an important scene I usually sketch an outline first, to see how I'm going to get the characters to the point they need to be at the end of it. My outline might look something like this:

Jane - Uncle Matthew was worried about something.
Robert dismissive
Jane has read Aunt Maria's diary, so she knows it's true (shows Robert the diary).
Robert - Maria was a batty old lady - or words to that effect.
Jane - How dare you talk about her like that! Storms off. 

This scene moves things along in several ways. Robert now knows that Jane has the diary. The reader is left in doubt as to whether Aunt Maria is a reliable witness and Jane's concerns are justified. Jane and Robert  have parted on bad terms and Jane might be less inclined to confide in him in future. 

Once I'm satisfied that the outline takes the scene in the direction I want it to go, I'll write it out in full, establishing the setting, including any of the characters' thoughts or actions that are important, and writing  each character's speech in a way that suits his or her personality. If Jane is a confident person, she'll make definitive statements. If she's more hesitant, she might phrase her remarks in the form of questions or say 'I think' and 'perhaps'. 

A character who has had little education is likely to have poor grammar and a limited vocabulary. A pompous character might use a lot of long words and speak in convoluted sentences. 

The setting will also influence the way characters speak and act. Jane and Robert's conversation will be different depending on whether they are in  Aunt Maria's drawing room, on a country walk, in a noisy, crowded pub or at a formal dinner.

What is most important is that all characters should have their own distinctive voices or ways of speaking. Even if Jane Austen did not tell us who was speaking, the reader would never mistake Mrs Bennet's speech for that of Elizabeth or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

Why write dialogue?

There are few hard and fast rules in fiction writing, but one is that popular or commercial fiction should have a substantial amount of dialogue. This was not always the case; some nineteenth century authors, such as Sir Walter Scott or Anthony Trollope, wrote page after page, even entire chapters, with no dialogue at all. It's unlikely this approach would win them many readers today.

Exactly how much dialogue is up to the author. My characters talk to each other a lot. Other writers possibly use less. But there must be some.

Dialogue serves several purposes.

It advances the plot. Character A tells Character B something, and at the same time informs the reader:

'My dear Mr Bennet, have you heard that Netherfield Hall is let at last?'

By the end of that scene, which is less than two pages long, a major part of the plot (the possibility that one of the Bennet girls will marry Bingley) has been set up and the reader has learned a fair amount about Bingley and the Bennets, entirely through the conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet.

Another way dialogue can be used to inform the reader is in crime and mystery novels, when the detective and his or her sidekick recap the crime and review the suspects and their possible  motives.

All this could be done in narrative, of course, but that would preclude one of the other prime functions of dialogue: to reveal character.  By the end of the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, the reader knows that Mrs Bennet is talkative, that she likes to gossip, and she is, or likes to think she is, subject to 'nerves'.

Later, in another important plot development, Elizabeth forms her first impressions of Mr Darcy from overhearing his conversation with Bingley:

'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.'

Later, Elizabeth meets the housekeeper at Pemberley:

'He is the best landlord, and the best master,' said she, 'that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.'

Again, this moves the plot along, as it causes Elizabeth to revise her opinion of Darcy.

Dialogue also helps to generate tension:

'Come, Watson, come!' he cried. 'The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!'

is much more dramatic than 'Holmes told me to get dressed quickly and come with him'.

The denouement of a crime novel, when the detective gathers all the suspects in the library in order to reveal the criminal, is another occasion when dialogue is used to create tension.

Dialogue also helps to maintain pace. The opening scene between Mr and Mrs Bennet moves along quickly because it's all dialogue; there is narration only before and after it.

In romance, dialogue can also be used to show that the two people involved are getting to know one another, and that they are well suited. (It is a pet peeve of mine that romance novels too often end with the couple presumed to be heading for a happy ever after when they have barely had a conversation throughout the book!)

And dialogue also serves to entice readers. A prospective reader  is not confronted with a wall of text when dipping into a book. He or she can quickly establish, by reading a passage of dialogue, who the characters are and whether he or she wants to read about them.

That is what dialogue is for. How to write it is a subject for another post!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Justice of the Peace

Today there are local elections in many places in England. This is relatively recent. County Councils were created by the Local Government Act of 1888. Town councils elected by ratepayers were set up under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

Before 1888 most county administration was carried on by Justices of the Peace.  The office evolved through the Middle Ages, but was formally established by legislation in 1361. Justices were appointed by the sovereign. Their role was not salaried, but they were entitled to claim some expenses.

Justices of the Peace were not drawn from the great noble families. This was largely because in the late medieval and Tudor periods royal policy was to diminish, wherever possible, the power and influence of the nobility. Additionally, a great nobleman would be likely to move between the court and his estates in various parts of the country, while a Justice of the Peace needed to be settled in one area in order to be effective.

By the sixteenth century J.P.s were appointed from among the middling sorts of county gentry. They were not necessarily very wealthy but needed to have sufficient education and time to spare from their own affairs to carry out the role effectively. Not all men who were appointed were active as J.P.s, but a conscientious gentleman might spend several days a month on Justice's affairs, more at certain times of the year and in certain circumstances.

As local government developed in the Tudor period Justices of the Peace acquired more and more responsibilities. A county might have a hundred or more Justices. Each would have county wide powers and responsibilities but would also pay special attention to affairs in his own home area.

In addition to dealing with criminal matters, as and when required by legislation they oversaw the administration of the Poor Law, the repair and maintenance of highways, and apprenticeships; regulated markets and fairs and weights and measures; fixed prices, especially of corn and bread; licensed theatres, alehouses, dissenters' meeting houses, gamekeepers and corndealers; maintained the county gaol; maintained bridges in the county; appointed, or confirmed the appointment of, various local officials, and dealt with matters relating to bastardy, among other things.

The 1580s were a critical decade for national security. William Lambarde, a J.P. in Kent, assisted the Lord Lieutenant with the muster. He also mediated in disputes about the beacon watch.  In the difficult decade of the 1590s, when there were near famine conditions due to bad harvests, Lambarde and others toured the county ensuring that farmers were taking their corn to market and selling it at fair prices, rather than holding it back hoping that prices would rise further.

Four times a year Justices of the Peace attended the Quarter Sessions, usually held in the county town. The Sessions dealt with criminal cases, as well as civil and administrative matters. Not all Justices attended every sessions, but for those who did, it could be a social occasion and an opportunity for gentlemen to meet to discuss politics and other matters not directly related to Justice's business.

Local government could not have operated and law and order could not have been maintained without the Justices of the Peace. Many gentlemen held other offices, in addition to that of Justice. They gave their time to this work as well as managing their own estates and family affairs. They knew their counties intimately and in their own home areas would have known everyone at all levels of society. They and their work deserve to be remembered.

Friday, 16 May 2014

For the apparel oft proclaims the man II

A historical novelist might often have a reason to describe women's clothing. A girl might be dressing for her first ball, or a woman might be buying clothes before travelling to a new job or to visit some long lost relatives. Such scenes help to establish the setting and reveal something about the character.

A writer is less likely to go into detail about men's dress, but it's still necessary to know whether a male character would have been wearing hose or breeches or trousers.

Men's hairstyles in the past also varied as much as women's.  When were wigs worn? Samuel Pepys started wearing one in the autumn of 1663, having his own hair cut off. The King and the Duke of York started wearing them about the same time, so Pepys seems to have been at the forefront of fashion. Not everybody wore a wig, however; Pepys' contemporary and fellow diarist  John Evelyn appears to have worn his own hair.

Styles changed, but wigs were worn throughout the eighteenth century. They were often stolen or knocked off in fights. Hair powder was also used, by men and women. William Pitt the Younger's Hair Powder Duty, introduced in 1795, is said to have ended the practice of wearing powdered hair or wigs. It survives now only in the legal profession.

Then there is facial hair. Beards were in fashion in the Elizabethan period and into the early seventeenth century. Facial hair did not become popular again until the Victorian era. Then it seemed that anything went; beards, moustaches, side whiskers, all luxuriantly grown. Hair products for men were advertised along with those for women.

When writing historical fiction, especially romance, one has to consider what a modern reader might find attractive in a hero.  A  neatly trimmed beard would be acceptable to most people.

A man's own hair, short or long, is fine. A man's own hair, powdered and tied back for a formal occasion, might also be attractive. The very elaborate wigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the facial hair of the Victorian era are less likely to appeal to a modern reader.

In the 1870s, when my current work in progress is set, one of the male characters, whom my heroine finds attractive, almost certainly would have been wearing side whiskers. When introducing him, I avoided the issue by not mentioning whether he was clean shaven. As long as readers don't imagine him with a beard, which he definitely would not have been wearing, they are free to think of him as they please.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

For the apparel oft proclaims the man - or woman!

In writing historical fiction one has to be aware of the changing styles of women's dress over the centuries, and what fabrics and colours might be available at different times. When did the styles associated with the Regency appear? When were crinolines first worn? When exactly in the 1920s did short skirts appear, and when did hemlines drop again?

And there is fashion, and there is what people actually wore. And for a novelist, a character's dress can be used to reveal information about him or her to the reader.

How quickly would a young woman become aware of the latest styles? If she was a servant in London or a factory girl in Manchester, probably quite quickly. If she lived on a smallholding in a remote part of Cumberland, it might take her a while longer.

It's not necessary, in fact it's probably unrealistic, for a character to be wearing whatever is in the latest fashion plates. Only the most wealthy and fashion conscious would be always up to date with the latest styles. Some might have the money but be uninterested in fashion. Most girls and women, if they could afford it, might buy one or two new items every year, or every winter and summer, and have a mix of new and older clothing. Some might rarely, or never, have new clothes.

Is it practical or appropriate for the character to be wearing the latest fashion? I have a character who is a young woman in the late 1870s. The latest fashion in ladies' day and evening dress then was narrow skirts with long trains and lots of elaborate trimming.

My character would not have worn a dress like that, for several reasons. I had to search to find out what she would have worn. Artists and photographers who depicted street life and domestic scenes are the best resource for this type of research.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Work in Progress

Looking at what I've written, what I'm currently writing, and what I plan to write, it's apparent that I'm unable to write anything that doesn't have a crime in it somewhere, even if the crime is only incidental to the main plot. Crime can be a useful plot device, of course, to push characters apart, or bring them together, in dramatic or dangerous circumstances.

Without wanting to give too much away, I've also noted that other types of event seem to recur in my writing. The events in question are often based on real life incidents, but I'm looking at ways to do things differently in future work.

I also have  a habit of choosing names beginning with A for my main characters. I don't know why that is, it's not a case of starting at the beginning of the alphabet and working through until I find a name I like. Some character names have been changed, or will be before that particular book gets anywhere near publication.

I'm currently preparing a third novel for publication on Kindle. I'm not sure what genre this one falls into. There is no romance. It's crime/mystery with the main action of solving the mystery taking place in the present day (or very recent past, for reasons that will be apparent when it's published!) But the mystery is  related to historical events and there are flashbacks to events in the past. Something like Kate Ellis's Wesley  Peterson books, but not exactly...

This one is much more plot driven and I do find I'm missing the opportunity for more in depth character exploration that comes with writing romance, but I have nothing to lose by experimenting at this stage.

One of the requirements for a successful e-publishing career is to publish a lot of books. Some successful authors produce many thousands of words a day. I can't emulate them, for technical reasons; they are very fast typists, and they write directly onto the computer.

I am not a fast typist (I never learned to touch type) and I prefer to write my first drafts with pen and paper. Writing directly onto the computer causes my writing to become very stilted. The consequence is, though, that however many words I might put down on paper each day, at some point I have to stop and type them all up.

Some writers dictate to secretaries, rather than do their own typing. Barbara Cartland was one who did so. In fiction, so did Harriet Vane - and Harriet's Miss Bracey seems to have offered editorial advice, too.

Of course, writers nowadays, with computers with word processing software that can save documents and spellcheck and wordcount and cut and paste, have things much easier than writers in the past.  I taught myself to  type when I was, I think, about twelve, on an ancient typewriter like this one:

This was not, I would like to stress, state of the art at the time I learned to type. It had been thrown out by someone somewhere, and somehow found its way to my family. I later graduated to a modern portable and then to a portable electric typewriter. Edits, or errors that couldn't be fixed with Tippex (which I'm surprised to find is still on the market), meant retyping the whole page, or even the whole chapter. Multiple copies required the use of carbon paper.

Then, in (I think) 1988 I moved on to an Amstrad PCW 8256Alan Sugar brought home computing (or at least home word processing) within the reach of writers, lecturers and research students in the UK.

Modern writers should spare a thought for prolific writers in the past, such  as Charles Dickens  or Anthony Trollope. Before the invention of typewriters they had no choice but to write everything by hand.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Time of Awakening available on Kindle

My new novel is now available on Amazon Kindle. A Time of Awakening is a historical romance.

England, 1860: When clergyman's daughter Anne Lester leaves home to take up a position as a governess, she doesn't expect to be swept off her feet by a complete stranger in the middle of London Bridge.

Read a sample by clicking on the link above or see my Amazon page here.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

"Disconnected, poor and plain"

The governess often appeared in works of fiction. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, fictional governesses was Mrs Teachum in The Governess, Or, The Little Female Academy (1749) by Sarah Fielding, sister of  Henry and John Fielding. Mrs Teachum is not typical of later fictional governesses; she is a widow who runs her own school. The book is aimed at school-age girls, not adults. There is no plot; the book is intended to improve the characters of its readers.

The most famous fictional governess appeared nearly a hundred years later. Jane Eyre was published in 1847. Jane has many of the characteristics typical of the governess in fiction; she is an orphan, poor and friendless, having to make her own way in the world.

Jane did not allow herself to be oppressed, but the oppressed, isolated figure, neither servant nor family member, is the most usual image of the governess. The governess novel is said to have been a popular genre in Victorian fiction. Various reasons are put forward for the popularity of this type of novel.  The simplest is probably that many readers were girls or young women who themselves were, or expected to be, governesses. The character was one they could identify with. Similarly, heroines of romantic fiction in the mid twentieth century were often secretaries.

No doubt in real life many governesses came from happy families and were valued by their employers. But where is the potential for conflict and drama in such a setting? If the fictional governess is presented as poor and friendless, her tribulations can be that much greater, and her eventual happy ending that much more satisfying.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

What's in a name? II

Nothing throws me out of a piece of historical fiction more quickly than inappropriately named characters. A historical heroine called Jade? No, no, no! In the past, calling a woman a jade was an insult.

Until comparatively recently, English given names were drawn from a relatively small pool. There were exceptions, such as Brilliana, but a writer would need a convincing reason to give a heroine such an unusual name. Wanting her to stand out isn’t enough; good characterisation should do that.

Before 1066, Anglo Saxon names such as Alfred, Edmund, Edward, Aethelflaed, Edith, Mildred were common. In eastern England a proportion of the people were of Scandinavian descent. They might be called Olaf or Raegnald or Thurketil.

After the Norman Conquest the Old English names quickly fell out of favour, not enjoying a revival until the nineteenth century. Norman French names such as William, Thomas, Robert, John, took over and have remained the most popular boys’ names ever since. By the end of the Middle Ages Anne, Mary, Elizabeth were established as among the most popular girls’ names.

In the eighteenth century, when the Hanoverian kings were on the throne, bringing German princesses to England as their wives, names such as Caroline or Charlotte became popular. The name Victoria was introduced into England in 1818 when Edward, Duke of Kent, married Victoria of Saxe Coburg. It did not become really popular until much later in the nineteenth century, by which time their daughter, also Victoria, had been on the throne many years.

Suitable names for historical characters can be found in historical records. Tax returns for Cumberland in the 1330s list people such as Aldonsa, relict of Richard, Agnes de Burghe, Thomas de Ravenwik, William Rotheland, Adam, son of Henry and William Walker.

Returns for the City of London in 1541 include Elisabeth Malyn, Ales Lupsed, Margaret Throme. Among the men are John Rookes, Thomas Bartilmewe, Ambrose Barker. John Hevans suggests that perhaps the Cockney ’h’ was established by the reign of Henry VIII.

It was usual for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their father and mother. Second and third sons and daughters were named after their grandparents. Subsequent children were often named after other relatives. The result could be families of cousins all with the same names.

That would not work in historical fiction, of course, where characters need to be easily distinguishable. However, short forms of names were commonly used in the past. Queen Victoria’s three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie. One could have a heroine known as Bet, her Aunt Lizzie, and a grandmother, also named Elizabeth, but who, if she was a widow, might never be referred to by her first name by anyone.

Then there are nicknames, the origins of which have been long forgotten. Anyone who has ever done any family history research will have spent time searching for Great Uncle John, only to discover that his name was really William. Or have always thought that Great-Grandma’s name was Peggy, when in fact she was baptised Louisa.

And a case of mistaken identity involving two cousins with the same name, or someone who is known by a name other than his or her baptismal name, could make an interesting premise for a novel.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A young lady, accustomed to tuition -

I'm in the middle of editing a novel which I plan to publish on Kindle next month.

The heroine is a governess. Governesses frequently appear in fiction, of course. It was an occupation pursued by many women  in the past, and sending a young woman off to take up a position as a governess is an easy way to enable her to go to new places and meet new people.

The popular idea of the Victorian governess is a (young) woman living in the household where she was employed. That was not the universal experience of governesses, however.

Over seventeen thousand women gave their occupation as 'governess' in the 1881 census of England and Wales. Many of them lived at home with their parents. The Misses Anna, Rachel, Emma and Jessie Adams, for example, aged from seventeen to twenty six, lived with their parents and adult brothers in York. Their aunt, aged forty six, who lived with them, was also a governess.

Agnes Turnbull, from Scotland, who was twenty two, was a governess in a boarding school in North Meols in Lancashire. The Misses Mary and Lucy Salisbury were the heads of household. There were seventeen young ladies, aged between eleven and seventeen.  Most of the pupils came from Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Harriet Askton, from Buckinghamshire, who was also twenty two,  resembled the typical fictional governess. She lived in the household of the Rev. Henry Pearson of Hackney, Middlesex. He had five daughters and three sons, aged from three to nineteen. Some or all of those were no doubt Miss Askton's pupils.

Advertisements in The Times in January 1860, which is when my novel begins, also reveal the varied opportunities for governesses.

Languages 'acquired abroad' are most commonly offered or requested. Music is also wanted. One lady 'about 40 years of age' offered to teach flower painting as well as the more usual accomplishments.

Some advertisements seem to seek, or offer, homes for women who would otherwise be homeless, as much as they do employment.

The lowest salary offered is fifteen pounds a year (plus board). Some agencies, however, purport to have positions available paying up to eighty or a hundred pounds a year.

Just to show that respectable young women need not be limited to governessing, one advertiser in 1860 was seeking an engagement as a daily governess, a teacher of drawing in a school, or a designer and illustrator to a house of business.

Inevitably, there were women who had become too elderly or too infirm, or whose skills were outdated or inadequate, who could no longer work as governesses. The Governesses' Benevolent Institution existed to assist them.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Time travelling

Revisiting the books one loved as a child can be a mistake.

One book I had from the library often was A Child's Day Through the Ages by Dorothy Margaret Stuart, first published in 1941. As the title indicates, each chapter describes a typical day in the life of a child from a different period of history, from the Bronze Age to Edwardian England.

Some years ago I found a second hand copy of the book. On reading it again, I couldn't see why I had liked it so much. The characters were flat. There was little plot or conflict or drama. Both the text and the illustrations seemed designed to educate rather than entertain.
"The merchant, still wearing the high crowned beaver hat without which he was seldom seen during his waking hours, said a rather long grace and seated himself at one end of the square table, with his wife opposite him, and his son between them. On either side of the fireplace stood a broad and high arm-chair finely carved ut of glossy brown oak, but at table the family sat on wooden stools. A linen cloth was spread, and on it were pewter cups and plates, and spoons of a kind of brass-ware called 'latten'. There were knives with wooden handles, but forks with wooden handles had not yet appeared in the homes of the merchant class." 
There are copies of the book available on Amazon for anyone who would like to read it, but for me the magic is gone.

Another book I loved was The House of Arden by E. Nesbit, forst published in 1908. It's not one of her best books, nor her best known. It's a time travel story, and even as a child I could see flaws in the way the time travel worked. But I like time travel stories and Elfrida was one of my favourite fictional characters.

The story was first published as a magazine serial, and that's evident on reading it now. But the characters are alive. There's adventure and danger as well as every day life. E. Nesbit's descriptive passages are scene setting rather than educational.

"They found the George half-way up Arden village, a stately, great house  shaped like a E, with many windows and a great porch with a balcony over it. They gave their letter to a lady in a round cap who sat sewing in a pleasant room, where there were many bottles and kegs, and rows of bright pewter ale-pots, and little fat mugs to measure other things with, and pewter plates on a brown dresser. There were greyhounds, too, all sprawling, legs and shoulders and tails entangled together like a bunch of dead eels, before the widest hearth the children had ever seen. They hurried away the moment they had given the letter. A coach, top-heavy with luggage, had drawn up in front of the porch, and as they went out they saw the ostlers leading away the six smoking horses."
This one I come back to often.